How Domantas Sabonis is playing while gutting through a fractured thumb and keeping the Kings afloat

How Domantas Sabonis is playing while gutting through a fractured thumb and keeping the Kings afloat

SACRAMENTO — Domantas Sabonis fractured his right thumb five days ago. Surgery is the cleanest route to fixing it. But that procedure, discussed behind the scenes the last 72 hours, is attached to a 4-6 week absence, per a source with knowledge of the situation. That means Sabonis would miss somewhere around 20 games.

This has been made clear to Sabonis. In response, he has told anyone who’d listen, if avoidable, he can’t miss that amount of time. This injury — an avulsion fracture to the thumb on his non-shooting hand — is possible to gut through, he’s been told, while remaining functional.

Sabonis missed one game, a Tuesday loss to the Nuggets, while the medical staff worked to diminish the swelling. It subsided enough for him to return on Wednesday in a rematch against Denver. He had 31 points, 10 rebounds and five assists, guarded Nikola Jokic the majority of the night and the Kings escaped with a 127-126 win.

“It’s been a long summer,” Sabonis said. “A lot of (team) expectations. Everyone has put a lot of work in. Missing a large number of games just didn’t seem right. If I could play through it, that’s something I could try at least.”

This speaks to the desperation of the moment for not only the player but also the franchise that traded Tyrese Haliburton to acquire him. Sabonis is 26, in his prime and having an All-Star caliber season. He’s only making $18.5 million this season and $19.4 million next, the final season of his below-market deal. This is a pivotal time for him professionally and part of the immediate importance is tied to team success, proving he can be a centerpiece of a winner.

The Kings are in an obsessive battle to end the much-discussed 16-year playoff drought. So many of the personnel moves they’ve made, including the Sabonis trade, were part of a grander scheme to slay that dragon in April of 2023.

Separate from context, Sabonis missing 20 games during an 82-game marathon doesn’t seem that seismic. But return back to the moment and look at the standings. The Kings are 18-15, gripping to that sixth seed with their pinky finger in a crowded West. Here’s a snapshot of the current standings.

1. Pelicans: 22-12
2. Nuggets: 22-12
3. Grizzlies: 20-13
4. Clippers: 21-15
5. Suns: 20-16
6. Kings: 18-15
7. Mavericks: 19-16
8. Blazers: 18-16
9. Jazz: 19-17
10. Warriors: 17-18
11. Timberwolves: 16-19
12. Thunder: 15-19

Zoom in on the loss column. The Kings are three away from the top seed but also only three above the 10th seed and four above the 12th. A couple of bad weeks can send you plummeting down the mountain. Sacramento has already been scuffling, losing to the Hornets, Wizards and Nuggets during this homestand, needing to steer the ship back quickly before the schedule stiffens.

That sounds like a near impossible task without Sabonis. He is a transformative player for them. Forget just the counting numbers: 18.3 points, 12.4 rebounds, 6.7 assists. When he’s been on the floor this season, in 1,079 minutes, the Kings have an elite 118.9 offensive rating and a plus-5.9 net rating. They’ve outscored opponents by a team-best 125 points.

What happens when he sits? In 510 minutes, the Kings’ offensive rating craters to 104.9, worse than the league’s least efficient offense. They have a minus-5.0 net rating. They’ve been outscored by 72 points. They become lost without their interior bruiser who also serves as the hub of their flowing offense. The backup options behind him — Alex Len, Richaun Holmes, Chimezie Metu, Neemias Queta — can’t come anywhere close to duplicating his skill set.

So it feels safe to assume that the difference with and without Sabonis over a 20-game stretch would be a sizable one. Maybe you’re talking about 12-8 as compared to 6-14. Considering the state of the crowded conference, a six-win midseason gap could easily prove to be the difference in ending the drought or remaining thirstier than ever.

“I don’t like sitting on the bench,” Sabonis said. “Especially in street clothes. It kind of wasn’t in my mind. I told everyone I’m still playing.”

The Kings are fortunate he has that type of mindset. Sabonis was excellent against the Nuggets on Wednesday. He made 12 of his 18 shots and both of his 3s, keeping Sacramento within reach while his teammates struggled before playing a key part in the frantic fourth quarter comeback. If he isn’t out there, it’s very likely a loss, as it was the night before when he rested.

“He literally has a broken thumb,” De’Aaron Fox said. “Going out there and playing through that type of pain against (Jokic)…He goes out there. He fights. He still rebounds knowing that hand is going to get caught in there, get hit, get banged. He went out there and it shows his toughness. He wants to win. When he came here, it wasn’t just for the future. He wanted to come here and win games now.”

This is an injury that won’t heal as well without the surgery and, because of Sabonis’ desire to play through it, will be put in harm’s way repeatedly over the next few months. It’s something Sabonis said he will have to “manage” on a daily basis. He wore a padded wrap on Wednesday.

So the question becomes whether it impacts his performance. Against the Nuggets, the earliest noticeable deviation came in his post defense. While guarding Jokic early in the game, he tried to keep his hand out of trouble and absorb body blows to the chest.

“My chest is sore now because I couldn’t use my hand as much,” Sabonis admitted to reporters postgame following a treatment session of more than an hour that included the cold tub.

Hide is too strong a term, but here’s a first quarter post up where Sabonis does seem to be keeping the wrapped hand from taking the brunt of any blow.

But everything else mostly looked manageable. The right thumb is part of his guide hand on jumpers and Sabonis had one of his better nights of the season away from the restricted area, making two 3s, a couple mid-rangers and five of eight free throws.

“Try not to think about it,” Sabonis said. “Went through my warm up. The medical staff did a great job. People kept asking me (about the thumb). I’m like, ‘Stop asking me.’”

Most notably, he looked willing to use that hand to grab rebounds, reach through traffic and even tap loose balls. Here he is in the early part of the third quarter stabbing at a Jokic pass and deflecting it with his right hand. During the sequence, he also grabbed a long rebound and hit it ahead to Harrison Barnes with both hands.

But it was a possession in the final minute that is the best sign for the Kings. They led by two. Sabonis was guarding Jokic. He was slightly out of position after a quick pick-and-roll action. Jokic had a step on a drive to his left. As he strode past, Sabonis could’ve let him go in for the tying layup. But he instead used that padded right hand and fractured thumb to whack down on Jokic’s right arm, preventing the layup and forcing free throws.

That’s an instinctual play from Sabonis he didn’t hesitate to make, despite the pain it might cause in the thumb. He’s an extremely physical player.

When he initially injured the thumb, exited against the Wizards and spent the next several days examining treatment options, there was reason for concern about not only his short-term health but the long-term ability of the Kings to maintain playoff positioning. Sabonis’ game against the Nuggets should alleviate some of that building angst.

(Top Photo: Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

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